Study Guide

A Separate Peace Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By John Knowles

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Sports, Games, and the War

A Separate Peace spends a lot of time talking about the war, and as much time talking about sports. At first these seem like completely different things. Sport is, as Finny sees it, "purely good," whereas war is destructive and, as Gene says, caused by "something ignorant in the human heart."

Of course, the kicker is that, at least for the boys at Devon, the war holds strange parallels to sport. Their eagerness to enlist suggests a misguided understanding of warfare as the ultimate game. Phineas, the master of all sports, is devastated to discover he can't be part of the fun. Of course, the novel argues that war is purely evil, as opposed to purely good fun and games.

Once you start looking, you see the idea of sport cropping up all over the place at Devon, from Finny's purely innocent Blitzball to the rivalry Gene establishes between himself and Finny – a rivalry that proves itself to be deadly. As peace deserts Devon, as the boys move from their youth to adulthood, sports are perverted from their once "purely good" form and take on warlike traits. No better example exists than Leper's obsession with skiing. Once a solitary and reflective afternoon activity, skiing is taken over and made into an instrument of war. There's also the idea of the Olympics; Finny tries to use sport to compensate for not being able to participate in war. And don't forget the tree incident itself – a devastating, warlike perversion of what was once purely good, tree-jumping sport.

Finny's Broken Leg

OK, read this exchange between Phineas and Gene:

"Isn't the bone supposed to be stronger when it grows together over a place where it's been broken once?"

"Yes, I think it is."

"I think so too. In fact I think I can feel it getting stronger" (11.15-7).

As you might have guessed, they're not just talking about the bone. They're talking about their friendship. The ever-optimistic Phineas believes that, having suffered a break in their relationship (betrayal, suspicion, confession), the boys have patched things up (forgiveness) and their friendship is now stronger than ever. This is…dubious, to say the least. Finny's leg is much weaker now than it was before, as demonstrated in a few chapters by fall #2. So we have to ask whether the same is true of their friendship, if it, too, is weakened by the break. What do you think?

The Winter Carnival

OK, by now you've probably heard us talk on and on about the two sessions at Devon, Summer and Winter, and how they represent, respectively, youth/innocence/peace/rebellion and rules/authority/war/adulthood. If this is true, then even the name "Winter Carnival" is in itself oxymoronic (contradictory). How can you have a carnival of games during the somber, rule-driven Winter Session? Phineas, that's how. When Finny, the spirit of the Summer Session, returns to Devon in the Winter, crippled, he is pitted against the rules and authority of this rather serious time. Of course, Finny has no enemies, so he doesn't see it that way. "I love the winter," he says, and adds that it loves him back. The carnival is, then, a victory for Phineas, proof that the "atmosphere" he "creates" can prevail in a time of war. At least, this WOULD be the conclusion, had the Winter Carnival not ended with the arrival of a telegram from Leper, having been driven mad by the war, the very event that will pull Phineas out of his world of fantasy and back into wartime reality.

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